A New Era of Taste: Austin Chefs Talk About Using Bitter

By Megan Giller  |  May 7, 2014
Credit: Erica Wilkins

Umami may be the trendiest of tastes, but bitter is the most elusive. When famed chef Mark Miller visited his pupil-turned-professional-chef Rene Ortiz a few years ago in Austin, Miller commented that places like Sway had a “lot to learn regarding certain tastes.” First on the list? Bitter.

Flash forward a few years. Have Austin chefs harnessed the power of bitter?

As Austin’s food scene has matured, so have diners’ palates. Flat cuisine won’t cut it anymore. Think of it as an extension of the eating local and homesteading movements. Instead of working with industrialized, homogenous-tasting products, chefs are creating layers of flavor and taste with farm-fresh produce and natural meats. The result is a burlesque act of salty, sweet, sour, umami and bitter, though we still have a ways before the big reveal.

Our Changing Palates

“Think about the first thing you tried that was bitter,” qui chef Paul Qui told us. “It was probably medicine.” We can all recall the dreaded cough syrup and the requisite gag afterward. But there’s a reason for that reaction. “Bitterness is often biologically an indication of poison,” said laV chef Allison Jenkins. “We’re hardwired not to eat those things.”

The result, as Qui says, is that “the American palate has shied away from bitter. Mass consumers in the U.S. want lettuce that tastes like water. They want chicken that doesn’t taste like anything and fish that doesn’t taste like fish.” In the past, chefs have followed suit, because it “takes a more deft hand to work with bitter flavors.”

But Americans - especially Austinites - love to eat and drink two very bitter things: barbecue and coffee. Smoke lends meat its bitter flavor, but smoked and charred meats have long been approachable, with the burnt ends being the most coveted. However, Qui notes that we usually eat something sweet with it to temper the flavor (sauce, anyone?). Similarly, though we love our coffee first thing in the morning, many of us tone it down with as much sugar and cream as possible. But given the popularity of espresso and cappuccino and the specialty coffee movement here in town, it’s clear that we’re drawn to bitter. (We even combine the two by making coffee rubs for meat.)

Several chefs we spoke with also mentioned the craft-cocktail movement and the necessity of bitters for a balanced drink. “Bitters balance more astringent elements of the cocktail and give you a finish that allows you to have one more drink,” said Jenkins. That attitude is transitioning to savory food as well.

All in the Balance

So how do chefs work with our natural and cultural propensity against bitter? “It’s crucial to find the right balance,” said Congress chef David Bull. “In its molecular state, it takes 1 billion drops of water to dilute one drop of bitter, which is much more than salty or sweet. The reaction on your tongue overpowers your palate.”

Jenkins says she wants salt and acid to linger on the palate at the end of a bite. “I don’t want any dish to fall flat," she says, “but I don’t want your palate to be overwhelmed either, so you can’t experience different plates.”

Given that bitter is the easiest way to quickly overwhelm the palate, it makes sense that it requires a skilled chef as well as an open eater to go forward. “It’s a matter of training your palate,” says Jenkins. Sway’s current executive chef, Alexis Chong, says, “I like to find out where you can put bitter in to balance and then retrain the thought process of the consumer so they can appreciate it in its natural state.”

The Food

Around town, Austin chefs are meeting the challenge of balancing bitter with other tastes. Take the fish caramel sauce that coats the fried Brussels sprouts at places like Uchi, Uchiko and East Side King, with bitter burned palm sugar and fish sauce. “It’s the perfect play of bitter and sweet,” Qui said.

Another example is bitter greens like kale that have become more than trendy. “It’s difficult to eat a plateful of greens because it’s shocking to the taste buds,” said Jenkins. At laV she uses egg yolk, olive oil and ricotta to coat the palate and adds ingredients like blue cheese or pear to balance the dish naturally. At his flagship restaurant, Qui takes care to work closely with local farms like Agrodolce Farms to control the bitterness in greens. “It depends on the time of day that they’re picked,” he said. He also layers flavors and adds salty and sweet to balance, as in the charred, caramelized cabbage dish with crispy chicken skin that Qui featured this past winter.

Meanwhile at Congress, Bull balances fatty salmon belly by charring the skin with caraway and coriander to create a bitter crust. He tempers the green onion on top with sweet snap peas and a chive tapioca as well as sweet Meyer lemon curd and blood orange. He says at Congress they focus on “enhancing natural tastes in a complementary or contrasting way to achieve maximum flavor.”

And what’s Sway up to these days? They’re carefully balancing traditional Thai ingredients like bitter galangal with a modern menu. Chong takes care to manipulate bitter ingredients to brighten a dish, for example, by dehydrating orange zest and turning it into a powder to add zing to a sambal sauce.

So have Austin chefs perfected the balancing act? Perhaps. But as Jenkins reminded us, it’s also important to embrace the Italian concept of whimsy. “No two bites are the same,” she said. “You might get a salty bite followed by a bitter bite. It shouldn’t be homogenous, and it’s exciting to eat things that change over the course of a dish.”